Comic Book Review – Superman: The Man of Steel Volume One (2020)

Superman: The Man of Steel Volume One (2020)
Reprints The Man of Steel #1-6, Superman #1-4, Adventures of Superman #424-428, Action Comics #584-587
Written by John Byrne and Marv Wolfman
Art by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Terry Austin, and Dick Giordano

Crisis on Infinite Earths was both a special event to celebrate 50 years of DC Comics and a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. One of those characters given a fresh coat of paint was Superman, the company’s flagship star. This wasn’t the first attempt to reboot the superhero; he’d been through several soft reboots since his creation. From a visual perspective, you can see how Superman’s costume has evolved but so too have his powers, supporting cast, villains, and backstory. To make everything more cohesive and move the character out of his Silver Age tropes, DC brought on comics superstar John Byrne who had made a significant name for himself at Marvel with work on X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Alpha Flight. The changes Byrne implemented wouldn’t last forever, but eventually, they would become part of the mishmash of ideas that keeps the character going.

The first part of this collection is Byrne’s six-issue Man of Steel series, a retelling of Superman’s origins. When Superman was first introduced in 1938, a lot of these details weren’t there. Byrne was able to look back across almost 50 years of continuity, removing the contradictions and shape them into something more cohesive. A significant decision that angered a lot of fans was the erasure of Superboy from Superman’s history. Now he slowly developed his powers and didn’t fully come into his own until he was in his late teens/early twenties. Byrne also presents Krypton as a much colder place than shown initially during the Silver Age. In the 1950s and 60s, Superman’s homeworld was fleshed out with all sorts of silly details, and Byrne wanted to make things simpler. 

The post-Crisis Krypton is a place where physical contact and expressions of love & sex are forbidden. Jor-El has violated the fertility laws of his world and begun growing his and Lara’s child in a gestation matrix stolen from a government building. The scientist has become aware of the instability at the core of Krypton, irradiating the planet turning the whole orb into one massive piece of kryptonite. He and Lara name their still growing embryo Kal-El and launch him into space, knowing that the world he arrives on will turn their son into a near godlike being. And Byrne keeps Superman’s origins secret from the character until the very end of this mini-series.

Through the rest of The Man of Steel, we see Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, slowly developing and learning to control his powers. In the previous continuity, Jonathan & Martha Kent were dead, having passed just before Superboy transitioned into Superman. One of my favorite decisions that Byrne made was to keep the Kents alive and have them serve as Clark’s shoulder to cry on and get words of advice from. Byrne seems very intent on changing the dynamic that Superman was the real identity and Clark the fake one. Clark Kent is most certainly who this character is, and Superman is a guise he must create when his acts of goodwill are caught and broadcast to the world.

We get an issue focusing on the first lengthy meeting between Superman and Lois Lane, responsible for naming him after he rescues a space shuttle. Byrne keeps the snarkiness between Lois and Clark by having Clark arrive at the Daily Planet as the first person to secure an interview with this new hero. Lois had thought she was going to break that story and holds a grudge against Clark for a good long while. Later writers would soften that and lead to a point where Lois and Clark were dating. In the current comics, they are married with a teenage son, so things have come quite a long way.

There’s a slight issue where Superman meets Batman for the first time, one of my least favorite stories in the Man of Steel series. That’s quickly put to the side with the rest of the series that focuses on the conflict between Superman and very different Lex Luthor. Before Crisis, Luthor was just an evil scientist jealous of Superman’s power. Byrne transforms him into what a villain of the 1980s would really be, a massively wealthy corporate tyrant. Luthor practically owns Metropolis and is number one until Superman arrives. At first, he believes he can buy the Man of Steel, but once he sees his money doesn’t get him anywhere, the real grudge begins. Harvesting a bit of Superman’s DNA, Luthor has a clone made who devolves into the villain Bizarro and vows to do even more terrible things. 

The final chapter in Man of Steel finally digs into Superman discovering his Kryptonian origins as the ship he came into Earth in suddenly erupts with holographic simulations. Byrne cleverly parallels this with Clark’s last night in Smallville and unfinished conversation between him and Lana Lang, his high school sweetheart. I love Byrne’s characterization of Lana. She understands Clark better than he does himself and explains to him that she doesn’t pine anymore because he’s not any one person’s to possess. Superman belongs to the world, and living in misery over not getting to be with him is just pointless. It’s in this issue that we really see the beginning of Superman as he comes to terms with both his alien origins and his roots on Earth as a human being.

DC Comics devoted three monthly series to the Man of Steel with John Byrne writing & illustrating Superman and Action Comics. Marv Wolfman and artist Jerry Ordway were brought onto The Adventures of Superman. Each book has a distinctly different direction, with Superman being the title that most reinvented old characters & concepts. Action Comics was a team-up book that would have Superman joining forces with a new hero each issue. The Adventures of Superman took its name from the classic 1950s television series, and Wolfman tried to ground its stories in current events to an extent, less big-name supervillains and more generic evil scientists and dictators. The series didn’t seem to share subplots at first, but that would change over time, with the Superman titles essentially becoming a weekly series for a few years.

In my opinion, the Superman issues are the best part of the collection, but that is likely heavily colored by my personal nostalgia. When I was a kid, I remember going to K-Mart and picking up a grab bag of assorted comics. Inside the two bags I got were Byrne’s Superman #2-4 plus some Batman books written by Jim Starlin. I remember being stunned by Superman #3, where the Man of Steel, as part of the Legends crossover event, is teleported to Apokalips, where he confronts Darkseid and recalls the New Gods. I had faint memories of these characters from Challenge of the Superfriends and was immediately obsessed. This issue also had house ads for Giffen & DeMatteis’s upcoming Justice League reboot, which you know is one of my all-time favorites. 

Where the book is weak are those Wolfman issues of Adventures of Superman. He’s definitely trying to carve out his own path with the book, and some of his ideas did have staying power in Superman’s mythos for over a decade. He introduces Qurac (an obvious analog for Iraq) and Professor Emil Hamilton, which became critical components in Superman’s life. We can thank Wolfman for the Lex Luthor reinvention. Back in the late 1970s/early 80s, DC was pushing for reinventions of elements in the Superman books. Wolfman pitched having Brainiac go from being a green-skinned alien into a xenomorph-like robot being that could bond and reshape itself. That was accepted, but his other idea of Luthor becoming a “legitimate” businessman who used his wealth to fight Superman was put on the back burner.

As someone who read many of these issues piecemeal, out of order, and with large gaps inbetween, it’s nice to see how they work in order. It’s funny that while I love reading this era, I had the opposite reaction with the New 52 initiative that tried to do the same sort of reinvention of Superman but didn’t take as well. Funnily enough, next month, I will be reading and reviewing the Grant Morrison Superman omnibus that collects his take on Superman’s early days in Metropolis to see what a drastically different direction he went. That’s one of the things I love about Superman, how he can be so transformed but still have these constants that exist that him who he is. I look forward to diving deeper with each volume in this series to see how Byrne and company continue to reinvent villains and characters to create a Superman for the late 20th century.

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